The Book of Human Emotions: From Ambiguphobia to Umpty - 154 Words from Around the World for How We Feel - Tiffany Watt Smith 2016


Hidden in the warrenlike shopping arcade deep beneath London’s Charing Cross Station, Davenports Magic shop is a mecca for children. They stand slack-jawed and eyes gleaming as shop assistants make playing cards float and squidgy balls disappear from under cups. Their parents loiter near the door, knowing smiles on their faces. Occasionally even one of the adults will suddenly gawp, as momentarily their world unravels, and everything becomes as strange and enchanting as it was when they were small.

Perhaps many of us today associate being stunned or gobsmacked, dazed and astonished with childishness and naivety. Between the twelfth and seventeenth centuries, however, wonder was thought an important response to life’s mysteries. At this time, philosophers and scientists believed they lived in a world strewn with rare and miraculous objects. This was a world of fantastical animals, where the wealthy bought alligators’ teeth believing they were from dragons, or bezoar stones* thinking they were an antidote to poison, and displayed them in their Wunderkammer (often translated as a cabinet of curiosities: “room of wonders” would be correct). It was a world where “monstrous births”—infants born with accessory limbs who lived for only a few hours—were thought divine warnings of catastrophes to come.

With its BEWILDERMENT and dazed submission, awe and FEAR, wonder was thought so powerful it could even harm you: Laertes’ lamentations over Ophelia’s grave might, according to Hamlet, make the stars “like wonder-wounded hearers” stand still. It was considered such a central human experience that when René Descartes made his inventory of the six “primitive passions” in 1649, he introduced wonder first (following up with love, hatred, desire, joy and sadness). He defined it as a “sudden surprise of the soul, which causes it to apply itself to consider with attention the objects which seem to it rare and extraordinary” (see also: SURPRISE).

It is a testament to wonder’s importance in this period that it was the subject of fierce debate. To many theologians, wonder, with its submission and HUMILIATION, was the only appropriate response to God’s creation. Saint Augustine warned against trying to number the stars or count grains of sand, since this was evidence of vain curiosity, and the pride that barred the way to humble devotion. Others thought that wonder’s paralysis could only ever be temporary, quickly transforming itself into purposeful curiosity. “All men by nature desire to know,” Aristotle had written, and begin “by wondering that things are.” Today we still speak of wondering how as well as wondering that. As one thirteenth-century text attributed to philosopher and theologian Albertus Magnus put it, the aim of the wise was “to make wonders cease.”

Wonders did indeed begin to cease, sometime in the second part of the seventeenth century. In the new cultural atmosphere of the Enlightenment, natural philosophers started to emphasize order over oddity, and tried to uncover timeless laws through their experiments rather than being astonished and awestruck by miracles and other aberrations. This was not only a change in philosophical attitudes. Around the early eighteenth century, the preceding century’s vogue for homes that were cluttered with stuffed crocodiles and ostrich eggs gave way to a new desire for space, light and order—and so the old lucrative trade in marvels faded away.

In the centuries that followed, many tried to reinvest wonder with the cultural authority it once had. Both the Romantic poets in the late eighteenth century and the hippies in the twentieth lamented the unweaving of rainbows that had taken place, seeking out—by chemical means if necessary—the feelings of awe and astonishment earlier generations had experienced so readily (see also: LONELINESS).

They were not to be successful. Today, curiosity has almost entirely eclipsed wonder as the appropriate emotional attitude of the educated elite.